“Leave”: The magical word on the tip of my tongue for 4 months. A period of indulgence and rest, to be away from Afghanistan and work while everyone else is still there. I piled into a blue Huey helicopter, hearing “Fortunate Son” in my mind as I looked out the window and heard the rotors thump and high pitched whine of the engine increase. We sailed past the Tora Boras, lush green landscape, and the towns and homes next to the river gave way to the barren rocky wasteland before we reached Bagram. Bagram is a cool, fresh air respite, an oasis in the burning mountain country. We turned in our weapons and waited for our flight outside of the USO. The sun was subtle on our shoulders and the cool north wind whispered at our ears, and my heart was sick with excitement to be going home. Ramadan just started, the election season is heating up, and I get to go home for break.
I left my cigars back in Jalalabad, and took a long walk to the PX and bought two Cuesta Rey Tuscans. I had lunch at the chow hall and took a leisurely stroll back to the USO center. The flight wasn’t until 1am, and the weather was perfect for a cigar and a coffee. I signed in and grabbed a styrofoam cup and filled it with the strong black coffee and retreated as fast as I could outside. There was a giant TV and very expensive speakers inside the building, and the only movies the American soldier can tolerate is something with lots of torture and women victims screaming in agony, or something with fast cars, loud machinegun fire, explosions, or anything based on a comic strip or toy from their childhood. I smoked and read until sunset brought a chill in the air most welcome. I watched jets roar past on the runway, their afterburners flaming and touching the asphalt as the plane angled upward on its takeoff. The muezzins haunting voice carried through the air for the last prayer of the day. It was Ramadan, and the sun had set, and water was being drunk after a long dusty day in the sun. I saw construction workers looking tired all day, despite the relative coolness of the central Afghan climes. I heard outgoing mortars thumping the outside landscape, and I remembered the scene in “Lawrence of Arabia” when Omar Sharif gazed at the horizon as the British artillery flashed and boomed, he said “God help them who lie under that”. “They are Taliban” my inner Lawrence reminded me. “God help them”.
We flew to Qatar, and then Kuwait. At Kuwait, the thermometer only went up to 120, and the needle was leaning on the number, trying to break free of its constraint. It is a flat desert country, a blistering, scorching oven. There were rocks covering the ground, and after being baked all day, when the sun sets, the rocks continue to radiate an obscene heat. Perhaps two hours pass, and temperatures drop to a cool 105. I can’t imagine being a member of the nomadic tribe that decided to stop there and settle. I nearly dehydrate walking to the bathroom and back to the tent. I slept all day, not wanting to move.
I went to the PX, and saw a little bazaar surrounding it. I tried to speak some Arabic to the shopkeepers, but they looked at me with blank faces. They were all Pakistani or Filipino. I’ve decided I won’t speak Arabic to anyone as long as I’m in the Army, in spite of the 2 years they set aside to teach me the damn language.
On the bus to the airport, I saw 3 pairs of BMWs or Land Rovers on the side of the road, freshly after running into each other. The two drivers stood uncaringly outside their vehicles, waiting for the tow trucks to come. I saw one car barrel out of a merge lane and slam into the bus in front of us. I saw a light bulb, part of the fender, and shards of plastic tumble on the road, and we stopped for 5 minutes, then proceeded to the airport.
The giant plane with an engine in the tail took us to Leipzig. The flight attendants were all distinguished gray-haired Germans with impeccable dress and vocabulary. They were quite the opposite of the plane full of rough and rude American soldiers they were forced to serve. The distinguished gentleman with a perfectly groomed silver moustache and ruddy good looks made his way down the aisle serving drinks. “Would you care for a drink tonight?” he asked with perfect diction, to every person with whom he spoke. “Pehpsi”, the Texan said, without looking up. “Sprite”, the black kid from Atlanta said, interrupting him. The intercom beeped softly, and a soothing voice with the slightest of German accent came over the speaker. “Good evening ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to World Airways, we will be serving dinner momentarily. The choices for tonight’s cuisine will be grilled chicken with cream sauce and vegetables, or tortellini with a marinara sauce. If the two entrees are not what you had desired, please accept our sincerest apologies. Bon Appétit”. Such dulcet tones, such sophistication and class, and she a mere flight attendant. What of the high society types of Europe, I could only imagine the level of grace and civility they should possess.
“Chik’n” the Texan snapped at Hans with the dinner cart.
“I’ll have the tortellini, Hans,” I said. “Danke.”
He looked at me with eyebrow cocked and lips pursed, his European hackles raised.
The flight to Atlanta was stocked with an American crew. Southerners with thick accents and impatient eyes. “Tuh-day’s menyoo is Sahzbuhry Stayk ‘n gravy, or grilled chik’n ‘n veggies”, the twangy voice erupted over the speakers. What a difference a day makes.
When the plane landed and I felt like a horse jumping at the starting gate, we were forced to line up and go through several checkpoints where stamps crashed onto our leave forms, cramping the paper with blue and red and black official looking markings. I found the direction to the Florida terminal and made my way towards it. I found myself beaming at every person that passed me. Little children skipping and excited to fly, their bags strapped to their shoulders smacking against their backs. Beautiful young women with shorts and athletic, graceful legs, sandals flapping against their feet, hair feathered and gorgeous, my heart lunging out of my chest looking at each one, but seeing only bored, cold expressions. What cruelty, what tragedy it was to be ignored by these obscenely beautiful women.
An old man shook my hand and said he was in the 82nd during Vietnam. I smiled and squeezed his shoulder and thanked him for it, telling him he had it much worse than any of us did.
The little two-engine plane touched down in the new airport in the swampy runway north of Panama City Beach and the humidity pushed down on my shoulders as I climbed down the stairs. I was tempted to kneel down and kiss the ground.
As I made my way through the terminal and onto the baggage carousel, I saw them. My family always in good fun overdoes it with the patriotism. I see half a dozen people with American flags waving and faces beaming . I smile and embrace my mother and do the same to my father and sister. My young nephew is there, 15 months old and he doesn’t remember me from Christmas or the weekend the family got together before I left. He’s beautiful, though and I take him in my arms and kiss him on the cheek. My retired First Sergeant buddy is there with a Davidoff cigar in his hand for me. He’s got an AK-47 scar on his leg and a .38 on his chest. He’s earned 2 purple hearts and half a dozen bronze stars since ‘Nam, and I always love hearing about the old days before safety belts and PT uniforms.
The 15 day countdown starts at midnight. I have an eternity of free time stretching out before me. No mortars, no PT, no sergeants, no latrine graffiti, but cigars and oysters and grilled grouper and my toes buried in the gulf sand. What a relief. I can’t quite beat my sword into plowshares yet, but in good time, all in good time.